Earlier this summer, hundreds of protesters gathered in Elkton and Broadway for youth-led Black Lives Matter rallies. At both events, members of local militias and unaffiliated citizens showed up and patrolled around the parks. Some Rockingham County residents expressed alarm about that armed presence at the peaceful rallies, in particular the rally in Broadway. WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi has this follow-up report.
One person attending the protest, JMU librarian Grace Wilson, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the town of Broadway seeking records of communications between the police department and the militias. She then sent those documents to Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. The center then sent letters to both Broadway and Elkton Police Departments in August, clarifying that Virginia law prohibits individuals who are not actual officers from exercising law enforcement functions.
GRACE WILSON: … I reached out to the folks at Georgetown because they had done work in Charlottesville after the Unite the Right rally. They've been very active this summer with tracking militia activity and sending letters to localities with advice.
A follow-up FOIA request from The Harrisonburg Citizen to the Broadway Police Department attempted to obtain any responses the police department sent to militia members, but Town Manager Kyle O'Brien said in a phone call that former Police Chief Randy Collins, who retired in August, responded to the militia members by phone. And that makes it hard to confirm what the tone of those conversations was like. East Rockingham South Page Militia member Mark Baughan, who sent Collins the map with both militia and law enforcement officer positions, did not respond to a request for comment. But according to a representative of another militia, Terry Cubbage, the interactions between Broadway and the Rockingham County Militia are being misinterpreted.
TERRY CUBBAGE: We did contact both Broadway and Elkton Police Departments, in which we were told that they, along with the sheriff's office, had the matter in hand, and they didn't need any assistance from us. They stated that we were not needed, but could not tell us to stay away, because it was also our right to be there just as anyone else had the right to be there … RCM also was not close to the protesters to intimidate them, and was out of sight at both events. We believe it's everybody's right to peacefully protest, and that is protected in the Constitution of the United States of America. RCM also does not discriminate against anyone because of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or disabilities.
He refutes the assertion that their militia was acting in the capacity of law enforcement.
CUBBAGE: We was tucked away to the side, just as regular citizens were that were trying to protect their community … It's a civic obligation. It's not a actual law enforcement duty.
Part of the problem, Cubbage said, is that people carrying assault rifles at the protests are being mistaken for their militia members, when they were either unaffiliated individuals or part of some other group. As for the Rockingham County Militia, he said –
CUBBAGE: We was carrying legal firearms that was concealed carry, that is legal to the state of Virginia and the United States … that doesn't mean that we was there to, you know, shoot somebody or do anything like that. I mean, people carry concealed a lot, especially in Rockingham County.
Cubbage wishes that people would reach out to the militia and ask what they're about, rather than [quote] "jumping to conclusions."
CUBBAGE: I do think that there's a misconception with our militia. We are a militia that wants to help our community. We are going to participate in food drives. We had a muster where we did a food drive for the food bank … we have really good people in our organization that want to do good for our community, and once people see that, I think it'll be a little bit different. And what you see about militias in other areas, and what they're doing, is different from what approach that we are taking.
Despite the RCM's intentions, some local activists are still putting pressure on police departments to heed Georgetown's letter about interacting with militia groups. Jessani Collier is a recent graduate of Broadway High School, and helped organize the protest in July.
JESSANI COLLIER: What we really want to see is them take that training … I think that will also increase trust between different communities of Broadway and the police department in general.